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March 24, 2018

The Most Influential Man in Baseball: Branch Rickey

Everybody that has ever watched even a little bit of baseball knows who Jackie Robinson, Mariano Rivera, and Derek Jeter are. These great players all share the same background as to how they started before they were in Major League Baseball (MLB). One person that few would know, unless they saw the movie 42, is Branch Rickey. Even though Rickey was long gone by the time Rivera and Jeter were in the league, he contributed to shaping the baseball world that we know today.

Rickey in college about to hit the ball in 1906 | Photo by Wikimedia

Branch Rickey first became known in the sports world not through baseball but through football. Rickey was the head coach of the football team at Ohio Wesleyan University and had helped them become tied for second in their division.1 While being the head coach of the football team, Rickey was also playing baseball for the Major League New York Highlanders as catcher. At the beginning of his playing career, Rickey had a very serious shoulder injury that always kept coming back whenever he threw the ball. In one game, he allowed thirteen consecutive runners to steal bases; while attempting to throw a runner out at second, his throw was so bad that it ended up in right field.2 Since he had a constant shoulder injury, it caused Rickey to retire from baseball. Soon after he was officially done as a player of baseball, Rickey went on to get a front office job with the St. Louis Browns organization in 1913.

While he was becoming the manager of the team, he noticed that some of the players on the roster were not as well-rounded as some of the other players in the league. Rickey initiated the idea of having young players develop their skills first in a much smaller league before reaching the Major Leagues. So, Rickey decided that the Browns should create a series of smaller teams under their jurisdiction and be able to play other teams that were willing to participate in this new way to develop young talent. Once the players seemed ready for playing in the Majors, Rickey would call them up and make them part of the team.3

Branch Rickey with the University of Michigan baseball team (middle with the suit) | Photo by Wikimedia

Branch Rickey then left the Browns and moved a block down the street to join the St. Louis Cardinals organization in 1919. Named the general manager, he was to hold this position for almost thirty years. In his first years of being the manager, he put together a World Series contending team; but, it would always fall short of being able to play for the championship. Years and years of title contention, but also many years of frustration, would be the main outcome in the beginning years of his term with the club. While Rickey was frustrated with the results of each season, he decided to start trading for other players that he felt would surely help the team finally win the pennant and go on to win a World Series. By doing so, he put together a team that, combined with the players from his designated farm system and current players, was able to go all the way to the World Series and beat Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees.4 In the later years of Rickey’s tenure with the Cardinals, they would go on to win the World Series three more times. In 1942, his final season with the team, they were able to set a franchise record in wins, with 106 wins in the season, and they also won their fourth World Series, with Rickey being the general manager. After the final season with the Cardinals came to an end, Rickey went to Brooklyn and joined the Dodgers club. “Those who know believe he’ll find a way, and baseball will experience another revolutionary innovation of some kind.”5 These were the words of journalist writer Roy Stockton when he found out that Rickey would be going to Brooklyn. But little did Stockton know what was up Branch Rickey’s sleeve.

Rickey was always looking a step ahead of everyone else. He always wanted something that could help the sport of baseball. Rickey decided to try and discover players that had talent like no one had seen before. And he decided that it was time to break the unwritten rule of baseball and be the first to have a Black baseball player on a professional team. Once he got to Brooklyn, the first thing that he did was start scouting for Black players (in secret) to see who would be that first one. But there was one problem; he did not know who that person was going to be. He was always looking to find the most athletic and most fearless players. He wanted someone who was not afraid of what others would say or think, and who would be able to withstand all the hatred that would come with being a Black man in the big leagues. Rickey started to hear about the talents of a man not only through baseball but through his varsity letters at UCLA in the sports of football, basketball, and track and field. He also learned that baseball was the sport that that player least excelled in, but he knew that he might just be the right person for the job.6

Jackie Robinson was the man that Rickey had dreamed of bringing into the league and onto his team. Rickey wanted to hold a meeting with Robinson to discuss why he wanted to meet with him. Rickey told Robinson that he wanted to start bringing Black players into the Major Leagues, but he needed “a ballplayer with the guts enough not to fight back.”7 Their meeting, which lasted almost three hours, discussed the hardships that Robinson would face if he were to be a part of the Dodgers Organization.

Rickey and Jackie Robinson signing his contract to join the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945 | Photo by Wikimedia

Before Robinson was officially signed, a New York councilman was holding rallies that were going against Black players being allowed to play in Major League baseball. He was posting pictures around the city portraying killed or wounded African-American soldiers that said, “Good enough to die for their country but not good enough to play for organized baseball.”8 This began to worry Rickey and he quickly got a hold of Branch Rickey Jr. (Rickey’s son) who was the director of the Dodgers’ Minor League operations and told him to hold a press conference that would officially introduce Robinson to the Dodgers Organization. Once the reporters that were in attendance found out what the conference was going to be about, a whole outbreak went throughout the papers and was claiming that Rickey is only adding Robinson to make himself look as though he is the better person. But Rickey was not interested in getting involved with reporters and only focused on Jackie’s health for what the future would hold for him.

Robinson was placed in the Minor Leagues, so he could play with the younger group of talent that was also trying to make it into the Major Leagues. Rickey also wanted Robinson to prove himself and earn his own spot on the Dodgers’ main roster. Robinson was placed in the Montreal Monarchs, and soon became the main prospect for the Dodgers. After the first season with the Montreal Monarchs, Robinson was officially called up to join the roster for the Dodgers. In Jackie’s first game, he was put at first base instead of his normal position at shortstop. In his first at-bat, Robinson got a bunt down to advance the runner, but Robinson was so fast it caused the fielder to throw the ball away from the first baseman, allowing him to reach second base on the throwing error. He soon scored in the game that they ended up winning 5-3.9

Throughout the rest of the season, Branch Rickey received letters addressed to Robinson threatening to kill him if he stepped foot on the field in their cities.10 The threats became so common and serious that Rickey had to call in the FBI to make sure that Robinson would be safe. Robinson ultimately took the team to the World Series to face the New York Yankees in 1947. And Robinson thus became the first African American to play in a World Series game.11 This was one of the best series anyone had ever seen. It went back and forth, trading wins, but the Yankees ended up winning the series in Game 7: 5-2. Even though the Dodgers ended up losing the World Series, it was not the end of everything; Robinson ended up winning Rookie of the Year, and other members of the Dodgers also won awards for themselves.

In the years following this loss, it became one of the most celebrated times for African Americans as more and more Black players became involved in organized baseball. But, after years of losing the final game of the season and not being able to bring a championship to the team, Rickey left yet another organization and now joined the Pittsburgh Pirates where once again, he would make even more history.

With Pittsburgh, Rickey knew, coming in, that the Pirates were nowhere near the Dodgers in talent, but he was still motivated to do something different. Rickey was always about player safety and had seen players getting balls thrown at their heads and figured there should be something to keep them safe from injury. So, Rickey came up with the idea of having some kind of protective gear that the players could wear, namely the idea of players wearing batting helmets. At first, he had both the offense and the defense players wearing these helmets. But the players did not like the way they felt or looked because the early models of these helmets resembled miner’s helmets.

One of Rickey’s greatest draft picks Roberto Clemente in 1961 | Photo by Wikimedia

During the time these helmets were being implemented, Rickey was still scouting for young talent, but this time not for American-born players. He found the talents of a man that no one had seen before, and his name was Roberto Clemente. He drafted him in 1954, and Clemente began playing for the team in 1955. Clemente was and is probably the greatest Latin American baseball player to ever have played the game.12

Rickey finished his career with Pittsburgh and then retired in 1959. He died in 1965. Even though he never finished the batting helmet, he is still the person that has helped shape the way organizations run their teams and was the man that helped break the color barrier.13

  1. Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey: Baseballs Ferocious Gentleman (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2007), 38.
  2. Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey: Baseballs Ferocious Gentleman (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2007), 40.
  3. Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey: Baseballs Ferocious Gentleman (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2007), 65.
  4. Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey: Baseballs Ferocious Gentleman (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2007), 169.
  5. Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey: Baseballs Ferocious Gentleman (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2007), 320.
  6. Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey: Baseballs Ferocious Gentleman (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2007), 369.
  7. Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey: Baseballs Ferocious Gentleman (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2007), 375.
  8. Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey: Baseballs Ferocious Gentleman (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2007), 377.
  9. Lyle Spatz, The Team That Forever Changed Baseball in America: The 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers (Lincoln: Bison Books, 2007), 67.
  10. Ira Glasser, “Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson,” World & I 18, no. 3 (March 2003), 1.
  11. Lyle Spatz, The Team That Forever Changed Baseball in America: The 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers (Lincoln: Bison Books, 2007), 305.
  12. Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey: Baseballs Ferocious Gentleman (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2007), 528.
  13. Columbia Electronics Encyclopedia, March 2017, s.v. “Branch Rickey,” by J. Breslin.

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